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US Bill of Rights
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

California Declaration of Rights.
Cruel or unusual punishment may not be inflicted or excessive fines imposed.

Not only does the United States incarcerate a higher percentage of its population than any other country on Earth, it treats those it incarcerates far worse than any other civilized country. We have it all: sentencing out of the Middle Ages, cruelly inappropriate three strikes laws, death rows, forced labor, little or no protection against prison rape, and solitary confinement -- not on a temporary basis, but lasting, grotesquely, for decades.

With that introduction we arrive at Pelican Bay, California's "SuperMax" prison, located in the northwest corner of the state, just a few miles from both Oregon and the Pacific Ocean.  A beautiful area if you aren't on the inside without hope, unable to look out.

The area near Pelican Bay penitentary
The "exercise room" for prisoners in solitary

Wikipedia gives us an overview of the facility.

Pelican Bay State Prison is a supermax California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation state prison near Crescent City in unincorporated Del Norte County, California. The 275-acre facility is explicitly designed to keep California's alleged "worst of the worst" prisoners in long-term solitary confinement.

Pelican Bay's best-known feature: an X-shaped cluster of white buildings and barren ground known as the Security Housing Unit (SHU).

Prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU spend an average of eight years in solitary confinement, before being released back into the general prison population, or onto parole.

What kind of conditions would justify a lawsuit alleging a violation of the 8th amendment against "the worst of the worst" ?
SHU prisoners spent 22 ½ to 24 hours every day in a cramped, concrete, windowless cell.... Food is often rotten and barely edible, and medical care is frequently withheld. More than 500 Pelican Bay SHU prisoners have been isolated under these devastating conditions for over 10 years, more than 200 of them for over 15 years; and 78 have been isolated in the SHU for more than 20 years.  This suit asserts that prolonged confinement under these conditions has caused harmful and predictable psychological deterioration among SHU prisoners. Solitary confinement for as little as 15 days is now widely recognized to cause lasting psychological damage to human beings and is analyzed under international law as torture.
Here's another essay describing condition at Pelican Bay.
SHU cells are specifically designed to reduce "visual stimulation" to an absolute minimum. The cells are designed so that inmates can't see out, or can only with great difficulty, and they aren't allowed to put anything on the wall. No direct sunlight reaches the SHU. Inmates are fed in their cell, twice a day, through a slot.

When Dr. Craig Haney made his first visit to the prison, he was told by a guard that this was the only design flaw in the prison --that they had not figured out a way to "automatically" feed the prisoners, eliminating any need for contact with them whatsoever.

And so the Center for Constitutional Rights has called 'foul', much like the Prison Law Office did in Brown v Plata nee Plata v Schwarzenegger when they challenged the (lack of) medical care that California's prisoners were receiving. That lawsuit ultimately resulted in a victory at the US Supreme Court and the health care system in California's prisons being put under Federal receivership.

Thursday, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed its federal lawsuit:

On May 31, 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement.  The legal action is part of a larger movement to reform inhumane conditions in California prisons' Security Housing Units (SHU), a movement sparked and dramatized by a 2011 hunger strike by thousands of SHU prisoners; the named plaintiffs include several leaders and participants from the hunger strike.  The class action suit, which is being jointly filed by CCR and several advocate and legal organizations in California, alleges that prolonged solitary confinement violates Eight Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the prisoners' right to due process.
Gabriel Reyes is a prisoner at Pelican Bay in solitary confiment. A few days ago, he published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle laying out his fate. Excerpts:
For the past 16 years, I have spent at least 22 1/2 hours of every day completely isolated within a tiny, windowless cell in the Security Housing Unit at California's Pelican Bay State Prison...

Eighteen years ago, I committed the crime that brought me here: burgling an unoccupied dwelling. Under the state's "three strikes" law, I was sentenced to between 25 years and life in prison. From that time, I have been forced into solitary confinement for alleged "gang affiliation." I have made desperate and repeated appeals to rid myself of that label, to free myself from this prison within a prison, but to no avail...

It is a living tomb. I eat alone and exercise alone in a small, dank, cement enclosure known as the "dog-pen."

I have two disciplinary citations on my record. The first arose because I donated artwork to a non-profit organization. The other is because I participated in a statewide hunger strike to protest conditions in the SHU...

I understand I broke the law... But no one, no matter what they've done, should be denied fundamental human rights, especially when that denial comes in the form of such torture. Our Constitution protects everyone living under it; fundamental rights must not be left at the prison door.


The citizenry of the United States does not care much about such goings ons, or we would not have allowed Abu Graib and Guantanamo to have happened, or at least we would have reacted in such a way as to have insured that such things would never happen again. Our attitude towards prisoners reflects this same philosophy. Locking them up, throwing away the key, and then looking the other way as to what happens behind the walls they are confined in is what we prefer.

Fortunately, there are at least a few judges left in the Federal judiciary who do not reflect this. Judge Thelton Henderson, who presided over the health care lawsuit mentioned above, is one of them. He also presided over a previous lawsuit involving Pelican Bay

In a landmark 1995 civil rights case, Madrid v. Gomez, Henderson found the use of force and level of medical care at the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison unconstitutional. During its subsequent federal oversight process, Henderson was known to visit the prison personally.

This new Eighth Amenndment lawsuit is being heard by Judge Claudia Wilken, the same judge who just days ago declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. The case before her now is Ruiz v Brown.

With respect to prisoners' rights, she has been quoted as saying

There are...recognized rehabilitative benefits to permitting prisoners to...maintain contact with the world outside the prison gates.
Torture is wrong, whether it is immediate via waterboarding or long term via psychological deprivation, whether it is done to a terrorist from abroad or an American we deem "the worst of the worst." Keeping people confined under conditions described here is cruel, if unfortunately not unusual. I hope Judge Wilken thinks the same and feels that she can act.

Originally posted to jpmassar on Sun Jun 03, 2012 at 09:44 AM PDT.

Also republished by Occupy Wall Street, SFKossacks, Progressive Policy Zone, ClassWarfare Newsletter: WallStreet VS Working Class Global Occupy movement, Progressive Hippie, and German American Friendship Group.

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